Dianne Isbell is best known as a Belleville News-Democrat columnist who answers readers’ questions about etiquette, but she’s also a fashion designer who specializes in elaborate hats.
Even Lady Gaga wore one of her hats to promote her perfume, Fame. Other clients show them off at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby.
“They’re all one of a kind,” said Isbell, 73, of Belleville, who works out of her home under the company name “HATS by DI-Anne.”
One of Isbell’s hats recently was selected as “Best Hat” out of 500 hats worn to a fundraiser called “Hats in the Garden” at Naples Botanical Garden in Naples, Florida.
The 2-foot-tall hat has three layers of black, ruffled simanay with a plume of pheasant feathers. The woman who wore it to the fundraiser bought it for $775, the most Isbell has ever earned on a hat.
“I was pretty thrilled,” Isbell said. “It’s just another accomplishment in my millinery career, but (the hat) sold for more, and it was selected for an award in an entirely different area of the country. I’m expanding my brand.”
Isbell worked 37 years as a civilian employee at Scott Air Force Base before retiring in 2001. Her experience as director of protocol for the U.S. Air Force Communications Command led her to start writing a BND etiquette column in 1987.
Isbell also taught classes through a business called “Etiquette Plus” and threw fancy tea parties for little girls, who wore vintage prom dresses, Victorian-style hats, boas, gloves, purses and jewelry that she had collected.
Isbell started designing hats in the early 2000s, when she made a hat for her sister, Judi Simmons, a member of the Red Hat Society. Simmons’ friends began ordering hats, and before long, Isbell was selling them in shops in St. Louis, Springfield, St. Charles and Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri.
“I have never taken a millinery class of any type,” she said. “I am self-taught. What has helped me is my mother and grandmother taught me how to sew when I was about 8 years old. I used to sew a lot of my own clothes, so I learned a lot about different types of fabrics.”
Isbell estimates that she has designed and made 1,000 hats. She now sells them at Shine Boutique in Clayton, Missouri. She also travels to trunk shows throughout the St. Louis region. Prices range from $50 to $175.
Isbell has displayed hats in art galleries and made them for theater performances. The woman who wore her award-winner at Naples Botanical Garden bought it at Marissa Collections, a prestigious store that had invited Isbell to display a selection of her hats.
“Marissa Collections stands on an entire block,” she said. “It carries Oscar dresses in the $2,900s.”
In 2011, Isbell won a Diet Coke-sponsored contest for “Most Exciting Fascinator” during New York Fashion Week. Her prize was a weekend trip to any city in the United States. She chose New York City.
Isbell also is a frequent award-winner at the annual Forest Park Forever Hat Luncheon fundraiser, where more than 1,000 women wear hats.
“I do a lot of custom hats for ladies going to the Kentucky Derby to match their dresses,” she said. “One of them was selected to be displayed in the Kentucky Derby Museum. They only pick 20 hats a year.”